Reusable packaging for the circular economy: There is still a lot of room for improvement here

Source. iStock | Tetiana Kolubai


In our fourth article on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), we look at the topic of reusable packaging and evaluate its use in practice. What are the potentials? Which ones remain largely untapped so far? What is the situation with primary packaging? Where are the problems in implementation? Because even if innovative reusable concepts have so far hardly been used as a lever for establishing the circular economy and their contribution is still miniscule despite numerous pilot projects: In the future, their importance will be greater.


For the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reusable systems are a way to establish the circular economy. But what is the current situation regarding the use of reusable systems in practice?

If you follow the reporting in the trade media, you get the impression that reusable packaging is playing a not insignificant role. The topic is regularly taken up and dealt with. But what does it look like in practice? And are there differences in terms of use with primary and transport packaging?

This differentiation makes sense because, on the one hand, reusable packaging can replace disposable primary packaging, such as yogurt in glass instead of plastic cups. On the other hand, reusable systems can also be used as transport packaging, for example in the form of plastic crates in internal company logistics or for transporting fruit and vegetables.


Potential of reusable concepts for primary packaging

In theory, reusable concepts can be an important lever for the circular economy. Corresponding calculations prove their high benefit. For example, a study presented by SystemIQ and WWF at the end of 2021 shows that plastic waste could be reduced by up to 23% by 2040 through the use of reusables. That would be equivalent to 909 kilotons.

The market potential is also promising. Assuming that 20% of current single-use plastic packaging is converted into re-use models, the potential market volume is around $10 billion.


Implementation level for primary packaging

If we move from theory and potential future scenarios to present-day practice, the picture is significantly different.

  • For example, the share of reusable plastic packaging remains very low at less than 2% of total plastic packaging. Overall, the share has fallen from 1.8% in 2019 to 1.6% in 2020, according to EMF data.
  • In contrast, there has been a sharp increase in the number of pilot projects for reusables. 57% of EMF signatories have reuse models in place. 14% are running corresponding pilot projects, compared with only 9% in the previous year.

Looking for reasons for the declining trend in the use of refillable concepts, one reason could be the increased use of refill concepts. One example is PepsiCo with SodaStream.


Practical examples for reusable primary packaging

Typically, reusable concepts, as they are played out again and again in reports in the trade press, come primarily from the food service industry. This is no coincidence, as there are now regulatory requirements in this area. In Germany, corresponding new regulations have been anchored in the Packaging Act. Examples of practical deployments and pilot projects are:

  • Recup: The Recup cup is used for the off-premise sale of coffee. According to Recup, the system is the largest deposit system for the food service industry in Germany, with more than 10,600 dispensing points. The deposit is 1 euro. After the cup, Recup has now followed up with the Rebowl for takeaway.
  • Vytal: Vytal has a similar concept to Recup but offers more different packaging for to-go food and delivery services. Another difference: The app-based Vytal system is deposit-free for consumers as long as they return the containers within a deadline.
  • McDonalds: Germany’s biggest system caterer is offering drinks and desserts in reusable containers in selected stores as part of a pilot project. The fast-food giant plans to roll out this system across Germany by the end of 2022.

Innovative reusable concepts beyond the catering sector are much less frequently reported. One exception is the Loop project.

  • Loop so far operates only in the USA, UK and France. The project offers branded products in specially created reusable packaging. These can be returned to the supermarket. Participants include brands such as Nutella, Coca-Cola, Heinz and Persil. Originally, Loop had also wanted to reinvent the “Milkman principle” via its own online store, where products are delivered in reusable packaging and the emptied packaging is also taken back with the next delivery. However, Loop now seems to be backing away from these plans. As far as is known at present, no work is being done on rolling out the existing concept.


Implementation and practice in transport and intralogistics

In the case of transport packaging, reusables are already much more than a niche. Here, reusable systems account for a considerable proportion of the total transport packaging used. The proportion of reusable packaging is also high in intralogistics. For example, GS1 has launched a new reusable standard crate. This is intended to reduce logistics costs for retail and industrial companies.


Pros and cons reusable

One reason why reusable systems have not yet become established on a larger scale is probably due to a lack of clarity regarding their benefits. This also relates to sustainability aspects.

  • Waste prevention and use of raw materials: Here, reusable models have clear advantages.
  • CO2 footprint: The situation is less clear-cut here, as the impact of cleaning, transport and logistics must also be taken into account.

Overall, corresponding study results can be found for both pros and cons. Even in the area of reusable transport packaging, opinions are divided.

  • For example, the 2018 study “Carbon Footprint of Packaging Systems for Fruit and Vegetable Transport in Europe” by the “Initiative Mehrweg” (reusables initiative) and the Fraunhofer Institute shows that the greenhouse gas emissions of the reusable system for fruit and vegetable transport are around 60% lower than those of the single-use system, assuming 50 rotations.
  • A study conducted by the Association of the Corrugated Board Industry (VDW) together with the Cologne Institute for Retail Research (IFH) 2021 states that reusable packaging in e-commerce is perceived by customers as less sustainable and users are also unwilling to accept the additional expense.


The future of reusables

According to the current state of affairs, reusable packaging is politically desirable and, from a systemic point of view, a key to the success of the circular economy if implemented correctly. The Federal Environment Agency and many NGOs have therefore also committed themselves to reusable packaging. Accordingly, we can expect regulators to increasingly impose binding requirements on reusable quotas and at the same time raise the hurdles for single-use, as is already happening, for example, with the Single-Use Plastic Directive.


Royal class, if…

The ecological benefits depend on the correct and large-scale implementation of reusable concepts and the willingness of all parties to compromise. Reusable concepts demand standardization and force marketing to cut back on individual packaging design. At B+P, we are convinced of reusable concepts as the “royal class of the circular economy”.

    You have questions about this article?

    Avatar photo

    Your contact person

    Matthias Giebel
    +49 30 / 367 524-21